Until 11 December the exhibition Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement fills most of the main galleries at the Royal Academy. As well as paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures by Degas himself, there are photographic panoramas of Paris that share the long horizontal shape of Degas’s pictures of dancers in the rehearsal room; there are also examples of the photographic experiments in which Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey analysed movement. It was a time when photographers made sculpture, painters took photographs and even scientists did work that helped painters (had they been able to look forward from Eakins to Francis Bacon, they would have found that they had succeeded, if not quite in the way they expected). The particular kind of ‘truth’ revealed by the scientists’ cameras – does a galloping horse ever have all its feet off the ground at the same time? – has the advantage of coming with little or no aesthetic baggage. Photographs made for a practical purpose – medical, anthropological – have a naivety that leaves the manner of their presentation to the artist. Degas doesn’t often make direct use of such material – the catalogue illustrates one drawing of a horse taken from a Muybridge sequence – but his drawings show the same pose from different angles, and his sculptures of exercising dancers were, as much as Muybridge’s photographs, tools of analysis. The remarkable series of drawings associated with the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is just one instance of work that extends exploration to the point where the notion of what is finished and what isn’t disappears. It is as though all the ballet images taken together are a single exploration of the subject.

In Marey’s photographs, information about the position of a moving object is obtained from multiple exposures in which successive positions of a wing or limb overlap. You get a strong impression of the way a pigeon rows through the air, pushing it back, beat after beat. Degas’s drawings of dancers in positions that could not be held for long, if at all, often seem to be reaching out, by way of multiple outlines, to an extreme position that is the essence of the dance step. Much of the catalogue by Richard Kendall (who also produced an excellent catalogue for the 1996 exhibition Degas: Beyond Impressionism) and Jill DeVonyar is about making images of things that happened too fast to be recorded by the most attentive eye or quickest hand. But the exhibition is also about a great painter and the subject he pursued over several decades. The mix of material – paintings, photographs, drawings and small sculptures by Degas and others – doesn’t always fit very comfortably in the space the Academy allots them. For once one could ask for less space between the pictures (although when the crowds roll in that may seem a foolish wish).

Amateur snapshots and old postcards tend to have high skies and extensive foregrounds in order to get everything in – the whole family, the distant mountain chain. Our two eyes set side by side take in a wide view but much information on the periphery of the image is not attended to. In the Paris panoramas on show, as in paintings like The Rehearsal, Dancers in the Green Room and The Dance Lesson, what you would see top and bottom in a standard landscape format is cropped. These panoramas (some taken with special cameras) also took in the area you would have to scan, turning your head, when standing to admire the view. In some of the paintings large areas of floor push the figures to the side; in others a foreground figure or group pushes in from left or right – and parts of those figures may be cut off by the edge of the picture. The centre of attention may be far away, like the red-shirted ballet master in The Rehearsal, who is reached by following a long curve of bare floor. Again and again the figures take up only half the picture surface.

Ballet Scene from Meyerbeer’s Opera ‘Robert le Diable’

In the Ballet Scene from Meyerbeer’s Opera ‘Robert le Diable’ the figures on stage are unfocused, ghostly white-sheeted nuns. They are broadly painted and form a pale band across the canvas; moonlight drifts through the round arches of the set; the strongest highlights are a splash of white seen through one of these, and glimpses of the scores on the orchestra’s music stands. Bassoons rise above the footlights; one pair makes a sharp note against a sheet of music. In the foreground are the backs of the audience’s heads. It is a most original and striking picture, but using blurring to convey motion was not a convention that Degas, the master of limbs caught at a precise moment, and of the way a body’s weight is led by leg to floor, would make use of again. In a delicate charcoal drawing of 1880, Dancer (Battement in Second Position), the outline and shading of the right leg is emphasised and annotated; when it is incorporated in The Rehearsal the calf muscle, both correct and unpedantic, seems to carry weight in a way which implies the movements that will follow.

As a subject, ballet provided variety. Other women whom Degas drew and painted many times – laundresses, women bathing or ironing – were also copied or traced again and again from sheet to sheet (pastel on tracing paper was the favourite medium of his old age). But a dancer doing formal exercises at the barre, or with hands raised to straighten a bodice, or head turned to adjust a shoulder strap, or legs apart and slumped against a wall, or bent forward to tie up a shoe, offered a far richer run of possibilities. In many drawings the outlines are thickened, the figures woven into groups, sometimes not dancing, often standing in the wings in tight groups. There is a posed carte de visite photograph of the dancer Joséphine Chabot. Her face engages your eye, her pose is welcoming – she reminds you how rarely Degas’s dancers have individual personalities. The dancer’s body is the theme on which he builds endless complex variations. Sometimes it is hard not to feel that a fine exhibition has been diluted with visual material that is necessary to the admirable catalogue text, but gets in the way of the central, utterly engaging, business of looking at Degas’s pictures.

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